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The Vision Fast

Wilderness as a Therapeutic Source of Self-Discovery


Article a u t h o r Dr. Steven Foster is c o f o u n d e r a n d

director of the School of Lost Borders in Big Pine, Cali-
fornia (above) Desert wilderness, shown here on the
edge of Death Valley in California, provides the space
and at b ideal for Vision Fast programs (left).

F O R UNTOLD THOUSANDS OFYEARS, our indigenous ances- Today, we can learn much from understanding these early wilderness
tors practiced a primitive form of"psychology" that was nevertheless psychology practices that were so functional to the survival of primitive
so effective it ensured the continued survival of our species. This "psy- cultures.The same problems they addressed are relevant in today's culture.
chology" flourished among indigenous tribes throughout most of the Thus, it is no wonder the same psychological processes are being redis-
human occupied world and focused on rites o f passage guiding tribal covered arid applied through a growing number of wilderness experience
members through some of the potentially disruptive personal life transi- programs and that a new field of" ecopsychology" is emerging.
tions that might otherwise have jeopardized tribal welfare and safety.
Sanctioned by tribal society, these rites confirmed the passage of the young A N C I E N T WILDERNESS PSYCHOLOGY
to adulthood and the mature to ever more mature states of being. Our
The mythical, religious heroes and leaders associated with the wilderness
primitive ancestors, however, would never have called these practices a
passage rite tradition are legion and form the foundations of the belief
"psychology."They knew the practices as rites of passage, or "initiation.'
systems of the world, even today. Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, and the Bud-
dha are arnong those who sought inspiration and wisdom in the wilderness.
A deeper taproot connects the Vision Fast to what The wilderness passage rite tradition is illustrated in the famous indig-
Jung called the "collective unconscious," the an- enous peoples' story of"juniping Mouse," who, because he heard a roaring
in his ears, left his innocent childhood behind and went into the great
cestral memories o f our species, graven i n o u r
wilderness to quest for a vision.2 There he met Raccoon, who introduced
genes. In a practical sense, o u r wilderenss Vision hint to the Sacred River (Nature). Beside the river he was initiated by
Fast program was developed in response to the Raccoon and Frog, and given directions to unlock the meaning of his life
story.The saga ofJumping Mouse then continued as the little mouse searched
blinking red lights o n o u r phones in the Mann fir "the sacred mountains, shining in the distance" (the meaning of life).
County Suicide Prevention Hotline Room. The first part of the story, "Mouse, Raccoon, and the Sacred River,"
symbolizes the initiation process, the dynamic of a rite of passage. In an-
Such rites of passage ordinarily took place in wilderness settings, outside thropological terms, the first phase is called "severance." Little Mouse left
of the village or camp. Everyone paid careful attention to these activities, his past and his familiar life behind. He severed connection from his child-
for the health of the community depended on their successful outcome. hood.The second phase is called "threshold." Little Mouse went alone into
Participants in the rites also gained great benefit, for the therapy they the great initiation place and came to the Sacred River, where, by dint of his
experienced was far more complete than what we call "therapy" today. own efforts, he caught a vision of the "Sacred Mountains shining in the
The rites went beyond mere personal or community health. They were distance." The third phase is called "incorporation," or "reincorporation."
the fertilizer in which the people grew an identity through their stories Little Mouse became Jumping Mouse. His new name signified an earned
about themselves and all their earthly relatives, myths, legendary leaders, maturity and a personal story that made mythical meaning of his life.Then,
sacred ancestors, and symbols of unity, health, and regeneration.The rites changed by his vision, he left his past behind and went in search of the
guaranteed the vitality of their imagination, enriching psyche, mind, and Sacred Mountains. Eventually he arrived, blind and alone, at his destination,
spirit. where the ultimate transformation awaited him.

I N T E R N A T I O N A L J O U R N A L O F W I L D E R N E S S / Inaugural Issue, September 1995 2 7

MODERN (received) with a challenge to live what they dis-
WILDERNESS RITES covered. In an informal council setting (known
The modern wilderness rite, called the "Vision as the School of Lost Borders), they tell their
Fast," is a process that my wife, Meredith Little, threshold stories to the. others. The guides re-
and I have been involved with for over twenty spond with comments about various elements
years. Our work in this area began by leading (from practical to mythical) in each story Intent
Vision Fasts and, for several years now, training the reason clients chose to participate in theVision
other leaders. The Vision Fast is an attempt to Fast riteis formally declared to have been at-
bring back, at least partially, the therapeutic ef- tained. Participation never ends in failure, and
fectiveness of indigenous rites of passage in the those who return early from the fast are also
wilderness. However, full effectiveness o f such helped to understand what they have learned.
rites cannot be attained until they are again sanc- The role of the guides is not to psycholo-
tioned by the culture. Such acceptance, while still Sitting in council, Vision Fast participants integrate gize, n o r t o p o i n t o u t weaknesses o r
limited, is emerging. At the present time, the the wilderness experience (incorporation) to return shortcomings in the person or their story."Per-
,numbers of people who recognize the intrinsic to ordinary life with a new level of selfunderstanding son-centered listening," such as that developed
value of these experiences are growing, reflected and acceptance. by Carl Rogers, is the rule. The guides basic
by the increasing numbers of wilderness experi- therapeutic task is "maieutic."That is, they assist
ence programs, even as "ecopsychology" courses old phase to begin the incorporation phase, this the individual in giving birth to a new form of
multiply within institutions of higher learning. intent is then fully "owned" according to the an- self-understanding.As in traditional elder coun-
The modern Vision Fast, as we practice it, is cient therapeutic formula. cils, held when initiates in primitive times
rooted in several disciplines: the humanities Threshold: When our "client" enters the returned from their threshold passage, the coun-
(folklore, mythology, philosophy, and symbol- threshold phase, she/he goes into the wilder- cils at the School of Lost Borders seek to identify
ism); the social sciences (anthropology and ness for a period of time up to four days. During the gifts, abilities, propensities, symbols, values
psychology); the natural sciences (ecology); and this time of" threshing," three of the old liminal the "medicine"inherent in the clients' stories.
outdoor, experience-based education (e.g., Out- taboos are observed: no food (hunger), no com- This identification of"the gifts within the story"
ward Bound, National Outdoor Leadership pany (loneliness), no shelter (exposure)except empowers the person to use those gifts. "Vi-
School). A deeper taproot connects the Vision for a small tarp and sonic rope.Though the safety sions" (transcendent o r psychedelic) are
Fast to what Jung called the "collective uncon- of the participants is carefully monitored, they considered to be of minimal value unless tied
scious," the ancestral memories of our species, have no contact with each other or the guides to practical action in the world at large. For ex-
graven in our genes. unless they chose to initiate it.Alone in the great ample, the vision of a new "way of being" with
In a practical sense, our wildernessVision Fast body of the wilderness, without social distrac- aspouse, friends, parents, or coworkers could
program was developed in response to the blink- tions, they experience a heightened awareness be the basis for practical action, as could visions
ing red lights on our phones in the Mario County of their bodies, their emotions, feelings, and of a new career or lifestyle. Insights surround-
Suicide Prevention Hotline Room. Our tutors thoughts.They are compelled to be more in- ing such issues are not uncommon in the stories
were several Native American "medicine men," ward and reflective and develop a more careful, brought back from the threshold experience.
acouple of excellent field biologists, psychothera- clear-eyed attention to the details of the natural
pists,a prominent social anthropologist, thousands world.With nothing but water to fill their bel- LONG-TERM
ofpeople who came to our school, and, of course, lies, their senses become more acute. Emotional THERAPEUTIC BENEFITS
all those years we spent in the field, exposed to states such as fear, boredom, anxiety, euphoria, Invariably, illumination occurs on aVision Fast.
the therapeutic influence of nature. arid feelings kindled by memories of the past People get "high." Many profess to be "reborn,"
As the years passed and we gained experi- become the basis for insight and internal changes "regenerated," or "revitalized." Separated from
ence in what we were doing, various aspects of leading to personal health and vitality.Transcen- the everyday confusion of their lives by the wil-
our program changed to reflect our new in- dent or psychedelic visions are not encouraged, derness, they are enabled to see more clearly
sights about the three phases o f the ancient although participants sometimes bring back such their path ahead. But the "high" is short-lived.
initiatory process and how to best present them stories. They have to return to the context of their lives,
today. But the core process remained the same, The threshold state is not particularly dan- the routines, the work, the day by day demands
involving the three phases: severence, thresh- gerous and our several thousand "clients" have of environment and peers. Sooner or later they
old, and incorporation. endured it without a single serious accident. It fall into a predictable depression. The depres-
is nevertheless a "perceived risk." Fasting, for sion is essential, for without it the experience
THE CORE PROCESS O F example, is beneficial to the health o f most cannot be truly integrated into the ongoing saga
T H E V I S I O N FAST people. But fasting in the wilderness engenders of their lives.
Severence: Like little Jumping Mouse, our "cli- sensations of existential exhaustion, faint-ness, Despite the fact that people generally re-
ents" sever from the past. Some of this severance and vertigo. For many, death is perceived as turn t o a culture that does not value o r
involves preparation to enter and survive the wil- looming close, even when it is, in reality, far understand wilderness passage rites, they rarely
derness experience or threshold phase.We prefer away. The perceived sense of death, or mortal- completely forget their experience, but hold on
that clients spend six months anticipating and ity, becomes an invaluable catalyst f o r to it, sometimes like a shipwrecked sailor clutch-
preparing for their Vision Fast experience. Em- self-discovery and change. The entire being is ing a piece of the mast. Even twenty years later
phasis is not placed on the life issues or problems affected: body, psyche, mind, and spirit. many are likely to say such things as, "This was
that brought them to the program per Sc, but on Incorporation: The third phase, incorpora- the most important experience of my life." Only
the intentthat is, what he/she would confirm tion, involves a process o f integrating the recently WC learned that when one of our early
by this act of leaving the past behind and taking participants with their ordinary life at a new level students had succumbed to cancer, an arrow
on the "taboos" of the threshold, such as fasting of self-understanding and acceptance. They are point he had found during his Vision Fast was
alone:When the person returns from the thresh- welcomed back from their threshold experience clutched tightly in his hand.

28 I N T E R N A T I O N A L J O U R N A L O F W I L D E R N E S S / Inaugural Issue, September 1995

Big Pine California, in the Owens Valley, east of the
Sierra Nevada Range and west of desert wilderness
in Death Valley. This is where Steven Foster and his
wife, Meredith Little, train wilderness Vision Fast leaders
at the School of Lost Borders.

An inescapable long-term benefit of the wil- declaring that their experience had taught them or private lands. Of all the forms of wilderness
dernessVision Fast is a lifelong love for wildlands. something about dying. therapy and outdoor adventure,Vision Fast rites
A young man, who at age 17 confirmed his pas- most directly stimulate the full range of com-
sage to manhood in Death Valley, later became THE FUTURE OF plexes within the human psyche.The three-phase
director of the National Outdoor Leadership WILDERNESS dynamic (severence, threshold, and incorporation)
School in Kenya. A young woman confirming PASSAGE RITES and the three taboos (food, companionship, and
her passage to womanhood in the Inyo Moun- The future of the Vision Fast and other wilder- shelter) potently convey the participant to what
tains later became a professor in bioecology. nesspassage rites appears secure. After all, this Thomas Moore calls "the soul of nature."
Another young man marking the attainment of dynamic has been around for at least a hundred
manhood in the White Mountains became an thousand years.Today there are a thousand Rac- They rarely forget their experi-
environmental botanist absorbed in the reclama- coons who conduct Mouse down to the Sacred
tion of military bombing ranges. Many others River. Each year we train 50-75 of them at the ence. . . . O n l y r e c e n t l y w e
conic to mind: the real estate salesman who joined School of Lost Borders, and there are scores of learned that w h e n one o f our
the Nature Conservancy; the college student who other training programs and apprenticeships
early students had succumbed to
became a forest ranger; the television director throughout the world,The number of Raccoons
who decided to produce nature films; the house- are growing and adapting well to the back alleys cancer, a n arrow point he had
wife who became a bird watcher; the carpenter of modern civilization. But their work is not yet found during his Vision Fast was
who became an ecologist; the teenage boy on fully accepted by Establishment intellectuals and
turf-conscious professionals. This might be ex-
clutched tightly in his hand.
Probation who became an expert in Stone Age
technology; the Disney executive who became a pected. In ancient times such passage rites were
for the benefit of all the people, even little jump- In the regions of the human psyche are
Vision Fast guide; the woman who spent her in-
ing Mouse, but the intelligentsia were the ones found the inward tools of change, adaptability,
heritance on a project releasing captive dolphins
who told the person that if they heard a roaring survival, and growth.These regions have names
to the wiaThe list goes on and on among the
in their ears, they must be crazy. like self-consciousness, feeling (as opposed to
clients we have guided and expands among the
Thus, the effectiveness of the rites are di- reactive emotion), reflection, conscience, anima,
clients of guides we have trained.
minished by the absence of universal cultural animus, dreams, personal and ancestral memory,
There are also other long-term benefits:
sanction. Graduates of experiences like the wil- and shadow.They compose the mortal darkness
positive shifts in self-esteem, self-control, self-
derness Vision Fast will continue to return to from which the light of insight and self-discov-
reliance, and personal values. Participants tend
social contexts that do not make allowances for ery spring.They compose what we frail humans
to harbor more constructive attitudes about past
their self-perceived, new life status. Peers, col- can know of the soul of nature and are the foun-
crises than they had before. "Victims" crawled
leagues, even loved ones may not understand dations of maturity and species survival. One
out of the swamps of helplessness and began
or even appreciate any personal discoveries or psychotherapist we know estimated that a wil-
the arduous trek to the sacred mountains of reso-
changes that have occurred. derness Vision Fast was worth a year o f
lution. Decisions are made and courses of action
Ecologically; wilderness passage rites are a psychotherapy. How can we resist such a chal-
are taken that forever alter lives. There are
"soft" use of the wilderness, even though the lenge? Humans will always be drawn to the
changes in priorities, spouses, and jobs, changes
personal experience can be hard.The solo expe- source of the roaring in their ears. IJW
in housing, relocations of residence, new voca-
tions and avocations, creative retirements. Some rience leaves virtually no trace after a year's rain.
STEVEN FOSTER, PH.D., is codirector of the
end the vicious cycle of addiction. Some sus- They can be conducted in various kinds of ter- School o f Lost Borders, PO. Box 55, Big Pine, CA
tain a renewal of their faith in matters spiritual, rain, from pure wilderness to multiple-use public 93513, USA.

. Six A. van Genncp,The Rites of Passage. See also j. Fie ndeI7S011,Thresh holds 2 . Se Ilyerneyohsts St017111, Sewn Arrows for an excellent version of the in napi rig
of Initiation, t.. Mandi, S. Foster, and M. Little, Betwixt and Between: Patterns M o u s e story. See also S. Foster and M . Little, .......he Roaring of the Sacred
of Masculine and Feminine Initiation. R a v e r . "

I N T E R N A T I O N A L J O U R N A L O F W I L D E R N E S S / Inaugural Issue, September 1995 2 9